Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Open world RPG design notes from Enderal, a big long Skyrim mod

I'm playing a giant Skyrim "total conversion" mod called Enderal. It does a lot of interesting things but also less-than-good things. I'm told it's inspired a bit by the Gothic series, which I've never played, so maybe a lot of my observations are more about Gothic than Enderal? 

Be warned that some of the screenshots are a bit spoilery (e.g. there's a tropical biome!) and my notes are obviously going to spoil some of the game's structure, but all these spoilers are pretty vague and anyway I don't name any names.

Anyway, here's my notes... 


Dev-owned wiki. The dev team "SureAI" operates the official Endreal strategy guide and lore wiki. This is a business model I've always wondered about -- make a big complicated game, but then earn revenue from selling ads on the wiki for your own game? It's probably not worth the hassle for a solo indie. Unless... ?

Sit and listen. Whenever an NPC is about to dump backstory and exposition on you, they'll ask you to take a seat. This is a convenient diegetic way of locking the player in-place for a cutscene, while also priming the player for an extended cutscene. It also sets the tone for some social contexts -- sitting at a big tavern table to share a meal, or sitting in front of a powerful person's desk. It is much better than the boring shot reverse-shot cutscene stuff going on in AAA RPGs these days, and makes Skyrim's "sit" mechanic more meaningful.

Expendable companions. You know how NPCs can like / dislike your different dialogue choices, that adds up to a score, and you hope you'll get to fuck at the end? I think Enderal had maybe like 10+ different NPCs who respond to your dialogue... and then a bunch of these NPCs leave and/or die. When the game shows you how some of your hard-earned relationship grinding will just "go to waste" anyway, then I think the player does something more interesting -- they care less about optimizing everyone for a perfect ending, because any character could be expendable. Destroy the player's expectation that relationship mechanic = main cast member.

  • I think this was a problem in Mass Effect 2, where you feel pressured to make everyone like you, and have that play out in the final mission with an optimal outcome... when actually, it's a much better story if a bunch of your allies betray you / fail / die
  • side-tangent: RPGs should reward you more for making NPCs hate you, because that conflict is often a more interesting narrative beat? reminds me of a central Nordic LARP tenet that more video games should adopt: "playing to lose"
  • see also: Far Cry 2?

Catch-up time / temporal branch and bottleneck. During big long quest chains, there are periodic quest stages where you have to wait 1-2 in-game days before checking in with the NPC again. Diegetically, the NPC has to prepare a machine or potion, or get supplies, or whatever. Systems-wise, this forces you to pause that quest chain and do something else. Sometimes they don't even tell you how long it will take, and you have to wait for a courier NPC to show up randomly to notify you. It's like the game's telling you to take a break and follow your other quest chains.
  • encourages the player to follow quest chains at an even pace, which is important if the quest lines intersect / if quests are at fixed difficulties. You don't want the player to reach the end stage of a main quest's apocalypse, and then go kill some basic level 1 rats as a guild rookie. The side quest feels like a chore because its entry expectations are totally out of sync with the character.
  • vanilla Oblivion and Skyrim went after this threaded pacing problem with dynamic leveling / leveled mobs in dungeons... Oblivion was hated for it, Skyrim was loved for it
  • but what if you could "fast forward" parts of quest chains, based on advanced progress in other quest chains? imagine you completed a dozen quests to become King of Fuckboy City -- when you walk into the Disco Guild, the Disco Queen shouldn't say "ok rookie here's quest #1", instead they could say "hey liege, we have a crisis, here's quest #6"

A bank is a place. In the main city there's a bank in the market square. There you can open an account and deposit money to earn interest (compounded daily), and of course when the banker goes to bed you can sneak behind the counter and steal all the loose money laying around. But that's actually just the start of your banking adventures, which keep bringing you back to the bank...
  • Cashing checks. The merchant guild's early quest rewards are payslips that you have to cash-in at the bank, which is a seamless excuse to make the player leave the guild hall and let some time pass.
  • Shareholder certificates. If you do quests for shopkeepers, some of them will give you stocks that you can add to your bank account for extra interest, usually at a small fixed rate (e.g. +5 coins a day)
  • Deposit box vault. You'll find or earn (or steal) safety deposit box keys around the game world. You have to return to the bank to open that numbered vault door for the reward. It's like a game show of in-world loot boxes, and it's surprisingly exciting to find out what's behind each door. A weird skull, or a dead body, etc.
    • Bank quests. There are several quests that revolve around money disputes and stolen inheritances which require you to go to the bank to investigate personal vaults, which further cement the fiction that this is a functioning bank that even the NPCs use.


The tyranny of environment artists. Level design is by far Enderal's biggest weakness, probably because it has to do with all the invisible aspects of level design. Like a lot of modders, the Enderal team is obsessed with surpassing their base game's production values. But without any meaningful code access to upgrade terrain engines or lighting systems, that mostly means spamming set dressing and clutter everywhere. So much of the game world has been designed for great screenshots -- height variation everywhere, foliage everywhere -- but in practice this results in really awkward level design:
  • Untouchable clutter spam = terrible readability. Enderal's set dressing breaks one of the most important rules of immersive sims -- stuff that looks similar should behave similar. So you'll see fake mushrooms, fake bread, fake detailed foliage, fake dinner plates... these are all items with interactive counterparts, and the inconsistency is frustrating. Skyrim was janky, but that jankiness emerged from its consistent application of physics and interaction to everything. The Enderal builders don't want the player to ruin their carefully arranged clutter, so we get absurd things like "empty" sausages or un-lootable plates of food, breaking Skyrim's UX patterns for pickups. Because what if you had picked all the sausage from the kitchen, then the kitchen wouldn't look detailed anymore! Oh no!
  • Lots of height variation and clutter = broken pathfinding. Every scenic rock outcropping and bush is a potential disaster for an NPC. Skyrim was already notorious for this "break the AI pathing and snipe at them" exploit metagame, but Enderal sort of just gives up here. Which is understandable, since making sure NPCs don't get stuck requires a lot of QA testing and painstaking navmesh drawing in the Creation Kit. But you know what makes that manual navmeshing work task more manageable? SIMPLER SPACES WITH LESS CLUTTER.
    • although, this too became an enjoyable exploit metagame for me later on -- playing The Floor Is Hot Lava by jumping from rock to rock to safely snipe at monsters, growing my "Snag-Sense" for problematic floor geometry that would probably break their pathfinding... ramps, especially indoor ramps with low height clearances, were my best friends, especially against any tall monsters
  • Everywhere is interesting = nowhere to breathe. Enderal makes a mistake that a lot of experienced level designers (including me) routinely make: once we've mastered the technical aspects of a tool, a room doesn't feel finished until every surface is exploding with detail. Every closet is a guitar solo, every wall is screaming. 
  • Nowhere to breathe = everything is cramped and narrow. Endreal never lets a big open flat field be a big open flat field. The desert area has so many mountains everywhere that there's barely any sand! Although there are a dozen different biomes, they all boil down to two topologies: (1) steep narrow valleys bordered by steep mountains, or (2) big cluttery forest where we can't see anything. 
    • Compare this to vanilla Skyrim, where the middle of the world is big, open, and calm with relatively few dungeons. Wider, spread out, less dense. You can climb over mountains to sneak into places. There's breathing room, there's space to improvise your traversal.
  • Dense narrow spaces = too much content packed together and repetitive encounters. Enderal has too many dungeons, caves, and bandit camps, all packed on top of each other. The starting area is like 2-3x the density of vanilla Skyrim. And because you have to follow the narrow road in a narrow valley, all your combat encounters funnel together too. It's not uncommon to walk between towns and fight like 6 different packs of wolves. This game is scared that the player might not have an activity every 15 seconds. It's more paranoid than a Ubisoft game.

Money sink. One common "problem" with Skyrim (and most open world RPGs) is that you end up with a bunch of money and nothing to spend it on, except nice-to-have things like convenient access to crafting materials or a house. 

But in Enderal, 95+% of your core progression skill points will come from the hundreds of "skill books" that you have to buy and eat (these aren't actual readable books, they're in the food menu).
Here, leveling up only increases your cumulative maximum skill cap. So you level up and get 5 "Learning Points"... but to spend those Learning Points on actual skills, you must eat books. The higher the skill, the more expensive / rare the skill book. 
  • For example, to level up your Archery from 50 to 75, you need 25 "Expert" Archery books at ~500 gold per book... and for 75 to 100, you need 25 "Master" Archery books purchased at ~1000 gold per book... so altogether it's maybe like 45k gold to max out a combat skill. Assuming you have ~3 main combat skills you want to max out, that's a lot of gold you have to earn.
  • This decouples the player's behavior from their character build. Want really good fireball skills? Then just buy a bunch of elementalism books. Unlike Skyrim, there's no need to spam 1000s of fireballs to level up.
    • but finding ways to optimize the skill spamming was a fun metagame in Skyrim -- realizing that crafting jewelry is faster than crafting armor, or going into the middle of a crowded city and casting "Detect Life", it all feels like fun hacks to vary the spells you use
It's a little confusing, but my actual beef isn't on this fussy leveling system, it's more about what it does to the rest of the game... It makes money too important. Everything becomes a question of maximizing money. Loot RPGs need to carefully balance the player dilemma of "this would be useful" vs. "this is better to sell" and this tips that balance too much toward the latter.
  • it makes the haggling skill bonuses ("Speechcraft" / "Rhetoric") too important, because being able to sell loot for +25% more and buy books at a -25% discount is a big deal when you have to buy so many books... vs vanilla Skyrim, where money is "nice to have" but doesn't gate your character progression
  • it also forced the devs to break the vendor liquidity system in Skyrim --  in vanilla Skyrim, sometimes you can't buy expensive stuff because there literally isn't enough currency in circulation between you and the shopkeeper. You don't have enough money to buy something valuable, and the shopkeep won't have enough for you to sell something valuable either. This is one of the most brilliant design traditions in Elder Scrolls games... which Enderal is forced to totally break! When the player relies so much on money to buy skills, that means you can't deprive the player of that money -- so every vendor in Enderal usually has thousands of coins on hand to buy your shit, and thus avoid a currency crisis. But currency crises are interesting! Ahhh!
  • see also: my writeup of Diamond City Blues, a Fallout 4 quest about a drug deal escalating across several in-game days -- an NPC doesn't want to be paid in drugs because they complain it's too annoying to sell the drugs... and in Fallout 4's Skyrim-like vendor system, they're right, it's annoying! But that's what makes it good!
  • No fast travel means you need to offer teleport scrolls to avoid too much backtracking. But teleport scrolls break the story because all these urgent quests about escaping / defending places don't make any sense anymore... How can we escape the city? Just buy a teleport scroll for 50 gold!... Why can't this army break into the fortress? They can't buy the scrolls to teleport inside?
    • This feels less dissonant in games where only the player uses teleportation...
    • ... but in Enderal the NPCs frequently use teleport scrolls, and also helpfully they even offer you free teleport scrolls back to town, especially at the end of a dungeon quest. In this game world, teleportation is cheap and common and diegetic.
  • Dry skill math design. "Do I want this +5% random chance to do ___, or this +3% damage to do ___?" Every skill perk feels marginal, random, and worst of all, isolated. For better math, I must defer to Tom Francis' post about good juicy chaining number design in Slay The Spire.
  • Lots of un-lockpickable doors that require keys. In Skyrim, this signals a Very Important Critical Door, where you should look for a clue to come back later, or a clue about where to find the nearby key / button. But in Enderal, it often signals a fake set dressing door that leads nowhere -- in other words, the exact opposite meaning as in Skyrim. To make matters worse, there's also plenty of set dressing doors that aren't hoverable at all. So why have two different types of unopenable fake door? My theory: they built a lot of these levels without knowing where these doors would lead to, and then linked these doors to actual interiors later on. So these are leftover placeholders that lead to cut content.
  • Not great encounter design. My rough totally-unscientific estimates of the enemy composition across the entire game:
    • 50% are different colored skeletons / zombies. Most are melee, some are archers, and a few are mages.
    • 30% are typical Skyrim human bandits. Most are melee, some are archers, etc.
    • 10% are wolves and different reskins of wolves. This game really likes wolves.
    • 5% are different types of trolls. The different troll reskins are pretty charming though. One is a weird gorilla, another is a creepy goat thing.
    • 5% is everything else.
    • I guess my real complaint extends to Skyrim -- homogeneous mobs without much variety or mixture -- but this problem is exacerbated by a very Enderal problem of narrow cramped arenas with too much verticality that the AI can't handle very well. Compare this to the variety of mobs in Doom and Quake maps, with terrain designed first and foremost for the NPCs.

All in all, I enjoyed Enderal and learned a lot from it. The voice acting is OK and most of it works. If you're a Skyrim fan, it's pretty much just More Skyrim. 

My only advice for any Skyrim veterans -- decrease the combat difficulty by one, below your usual combat difficulty, at least for the first few hours. The beginning is too hard with a punishing healing system, few resources, 'ots of wolves, and general confusion. Then gradually ramp up difficulty as you get more overpowered + as the combat gets more and more boring.

Enderal is free on Steam for owners of both regular Skyrim and the Skyrim SE.